Free Inquiry
Appeared in Secular Humanist Bulletin, vol 24 issue 4

How to Write an Ungodly Letter

Janet L. Factor

The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 24, Number 4 (Winter 2008/2009).

We’ve all read them: letters to the editor that make us pound our heads on the table. Fanatical diatribes that claim America for conservative Christianity and demonize secularists. But have you done anything about them? Stop shouting at your innocent spouse. Instead, sharpen your quill and join the battle.

The Letters to the Editor section is the current equivalent of the Roman forum. In a modern community, this page is where people turn to learn what those around them are thinking. So speak up! Remember, though, few atheists have the luxury of being open about their views. Whatever you say will likely be taken as if you were speaking for every freethinker on the planet. Take great care how you represent us.

Avoid anger or mockery. To be accepted as a voice of reason, you must sound reasonable. This requires more than the use of logic. Be informative, show caring, and display a light touch if you can. A happily engaged audience repeats what it hears. Be, in your letters, the sort of person others would join for a long talk around the potbellied stove.

Easy to say. Harder to do. Exactly how does one go about turning out a letter to the editor that meets these conditions? Well, I’ve been writing them for several years, and I’ve gradually developed a process that seems to work most of the time. I’ll share it with you.

Before anything else, familiarize yourself with newspaper policies. Word limit? Adhere to it. (Even if there isn’t, aim for the average length of letters printed.) If they want your phone number, give it. The editor is God. Give him or her every respect, and he or she will be fair and even help you. Defy the rules, and your words will never see print, or worse, appear mangled.

Now, start with what prompted you to write. I normally write in response to another letter or an article. I go to the newspaper’s Web site and copy that text into a word-processing program. Then I format it so that it appears on the page surrounded by lots of white space. If you are writing about an issue, summarize it and do the same with your summary. Then print this out and sit down to begin.

I read the text using a highlighter to mark passages that particularly strike me and write my reactions in the white space around them. No point being eloquent at this stage; just capture thoughts and emotions as they come and clarify what is and isn’t significant. I often write questions that I later answer.

This stage is exploratory. Put it aside and come back to it a few times until nothing new occurs to you. It’s tempting to skip this step, but don’t. If you focus only on your initial reaction, you’ll miss other possibilities that may be more fruitful.

Next, analyze your notes. You’ll likely find that you have naturally begun to dissect the other side’s arguments and to construct several of your own. Evaluate these as possible approaches for your letter. Pick out one or two lines of attack that seem the strongest and most direct. It’s difficult to abandon one’s brainchildren but steel yourself to it. You want people to remember what you say and repeat it; simplicity serves that end.

How to choose? While a point with important implications deserves preference over a trivial triumph, strategy matters too. Between arguments of equal import, it’s best to choose one that lends itself to a commonsense approach. If your budding strategy can be summed up in a phrase like “putting the shoe on the other foot,” it will be more persuasive. If you can’t find an apt phrase, try to characterize your strategy in your own words. Knowing exactly what it is will enable you to better craft words to embody it.

Okay, take a break. At this point, sleep on it. But, like me, keep a notepad by the bed for fresh insights that occur in the wee hours.

Next day, start writing. It’s not a term paper. Write in your natural voice; imagine that you are speaking directly to another person. Starting with the salutation helps. Let the conversation flow. Generally you will find it leads in productive directions. Don’t worry about length now; the point is simply to get your ideas into words.

Once they’re there, check them over. Are they organized? Rearranging often improves effect. Then read the letter aloud to be sure it works. If you find you must alter your tone of voice in order to convey your meaning, rewrite; the reader can’t hear you.

Time to worry about word count. Compare what you have to what you must achieve. If you are over, now’s the time to make cuts. But even if you’re not, here’s one of the secrets to good writing: second draft equals first draft minus 10 percent. I always try to condense this much. It compels me to choose my words carefully. Trimming an argument, like sharpening an arrow, makes it more penetrating.

Think you’re done? Think again. Before you submit, get as much feedback as you can. Share your letter with every indulgent relative and friend you possess and ask for criticism. I post to freethinker e-mail lists. I always get useful comments. This step is absolutely vital if you are trying to use humor in your letter! Humor is the best weapon, but it is dangerous to handle, especially in print. Make certain it will work before you deploy it.

Take suggestions from your volunteer editors seriously. Incorporate those that work best. Then, do a final, scrupulous edit. Not every paper will do this for you; some delight in letting a writer look foolish. (Tip: reading backward makes typos leap out.) Scour your work for errors in grammar, punctuation, word use. If you’re in the least doubt, look it up. Give those who disagree no excuse to dismiss you.

Okay, you’re done! Send that masterpiece to the paper. And when it appears, be prepared to discover who among your acquaintances is a secret secularist. They are likely to approach you now.

Meantime, need inspiration? See below. Names have been changed to protect the guilty.

On Same-Sex Unions

This got the most responses and those most heartfelt; people called me practically weeping with gratitude. Also, the argument has general application.

I was struck by the tone of the letters in Tuesday’s issue promoting a ban on gay marriage. It seemed to me that all the authors suffered from the same misunderstanding. None of them seemed to appreciate the difference between religious law and secular law. To put it another way, they fail to appreciate the difference between a sin and a crime.
A sin is a metaphysical offense against a spiritual being usually called a god. A crime is an offense against other human beings, a harm that occurs purely in the physical world. Thomas Jefferson made the distinction clearly in a famous example: “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say that there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Sin may rightly be the concern of those who believe in a god, but it is not rightly the concern of the state.
Secular law is concerned only with crime. All the religious arguments in the world are irrelevant. Unless these people can point to an actual material harm done to them or others, there is no reason why forbidding gay people to marry should be any concern of the state.
If a god is up there, he may possibly be offended by gay marriage. But if he is up there, I think it unlikely that he really requires the state’s protection. Considering the amount of vitriol spilled over this topic, however, it’s obvious that gay couples do. Let’s give it to them. (255 words)

Religion in the Schools

Here you can see the process I talk about in the how-to actually unfolding on the page.

When I read the Oct. 31 letter by Chip Chucker advocating wholesale abandonment of the public school system by Christians in order to ensure that children develop a biblical world view (all the horror I needed for Halloween day!), I hardly knew where to begin in replying.
His assumption that all Christians share his brand of belief? His conviction that schools must be indoctrination centers for an ideology, rather than impartial purveyors of knowledge? His nostalgia for an era when the only acceptable belief was one that agreed with his? His blatant hypocrisy in advocating public funding of private religious schools, when he has just complained about taxes being used to support public schools? The mind reels.
However, upon reflection, I have decided that the heart of the issue lies not in these things, but in a larger question, one that seems never to have occurred to Mr. Chucker.
That question is this: if you truly find that the only way to ensure that your children adopt your beliefs is by totally controlling their access to information, that is, by deliberately keeping them in ignorance, isn’t that a pretty clear indication that what you believe is not true? (198 words)

Denigrating Atheists

This letter demonstrates how to disarm a rhetorical device, uses a commonsense argument as mentioned in the how-to, and deploys humor.

Wow! Hats off to Gabby Skinner. In his letter he deployed a nifty strategy for forestalling replies from those who sympathize with Robin Suregood [a fellow secularist]. Having characterized atheists as chronically angry, “That only proves how angry you are!” he’ll say.
It’s like ending an argument with your spouse by accusing him or her of always wanting the last word. What a neat rhetorical trap! But that doesn’t make it true.
Atheists must be angry, Skinner claims, because otherwise why would anyone take offense at being prayed for? That may sound sensible, but it’s misleading. Not all prayers are the same, nor are they all offered in the same manner.
Let’s put the shoe on the other foot. Skinner says Christians welcome all prayers, whether from Christians, Jews, or Muslims. But what about prayers from worshipers of gods that he doesn’t believe in? What about publicly offered prayers, not just for his welfare, but supposedly for the salvation of the doomed soul that inhabits his wretched self?
Imagine a Brahmin proclaiming here, “Hindus must pray for Gabby daily, for with all his bad karma he will surely suffer rebirth as the maggot of a carrion fly on the stinking corpse of a vulture. But perhaps, if the love of Krishna reforms his wicked heart, he may achieve human reincarnation once more.” (My apologies to the Hindu community, but I needed a vivid example.)
Mr. Skinner would surely take offense at this, and at the gall of those who offered to save him by praying to what he regards as fictional beings. An insult wrapped in ostentatious sanctimony is still an insult.
In short, if Mr. Skinner habitually addresses atheists in person the way he does in the paper, it’s no wonder he thinks they’re angry all the time! But, right now, I’ll bet a lot of them are laughing. (305 words)

When Faith Is Our Guide

This is a good, general-purpose argument, expressed in a way that appeals to people’s sense of civic duty.

Rich Roman (Sept. 18) says that it would be difficult or impossible to discuss the pressing issues of our day without considering what God wishes us to do. Mr. Roman has it backwards. It is exactly the fruitless search for divine instruction that makes debates about stem cells and similar issues so intractable.
No holy text directly addresses the dilemmas brought about by modern life. Those who seek scriptural guidance on these topics must fall back on the most general statements they find and stretch them to fit. This tends to result in sweeping judgments that depend solely on personal interpretation—that is, on faith. But faith is an individual guide. It cannot ethically be used to impose choices on others, or on society.
To justly frame a law requires the same kind of objective evidence that will stand up in a court of law. No man should ever be convicted on the basis of fervent belief in his guilt. It takes more than that. And it takes more than such belief to fuel civil discourse.
We do not all share the same faith. But we all live in the same world. If we lay aside belief and instead inquire into causes and consequences, if we examine costs and weigh benefits that can be seen by all, then we can reason together to a conclusion that could be defended, if need be, even at the last judgment of all. (238 words)

This letter attacks fundamentalist Christian doctrine from a novel perspective. Restating an argument in fresh terms is a useful strategy.

Let me see if I have this straight. In his letter Barry Rubble claims that the Christian version of the human condition goes like this:
From before birth we are contaminated with evil. Though God created us, he bears no responsibility for this, and rejects us from the moment we are born because of it.
Being perfect himself, he demands that we be perfect or be punished. We are by nature incapable of achieving this standard. Therefore God withdraws his love from us.
There is no help in this world. Other humans are as vile as ourselves. In fact, we are so vile that even when we constantly consult our conscience and obey its guide, we still fail, offending God even when we are trying our best not to do so.
Therefore, we must constantly confess our unworthiness and beg for God’s forgiveness, which can only be obtained through the intervention of Jesus, his firstborn, who is perfect. If we willingly abase ourselves in this manner, we can hope that after death releases us from suffering we will finally be granted the love of God that we have so desperately sought after our entire lives.
Have I got that right?
This is not an adult philosophy of life. It is a perfect portrait of the psychology of a chronically abused child.
That’s no way to get to heaven; it’s a way to live in hell. (235 words)

Religion and Health Care

This letter addresses an issue that is current and presents another argument that could be adapted to various cases.

I was astonished at the poverty of the moral reasoning employed in the Feb. 13 letter from the Barkersville Ministerial Association, which praised in extravagant terms the actions of pharmacist Allan Van Loon when he refused to fill a prescription for emergency contraception.
It is true that, were Van Loon himself a female teenage rape victim, his choice to forgo the use of such contraceptives might be a shining example of courage in conviction. But the point is, he is not. Van Loon took it upon himself to make a moral decision on behalf of another person, which he had no right to do. This is a violation of freedom of conscience, not an example of it!
This distinction seems to have escaped the reverends, as it escapes all self-appointed guardians of morality. Nonetheless it is basic. We all instinctively understand, and moral philosophers agree, that, all other things being equal, the person who must bear the consequences of a decision is the person who has the right to make that decision.
The violation of this rule is, in fact, what makes a crime a crime. Criminals undertake decisions that have damaging consequences for other people without those people’s consent.
Courage alone doesn’t make a hero; it takes lots of guts to rob a bank too. What Van Loon did was not heroic; it was simply criminal. (223 words)

Same issue, once again, general purpose argument!

Reverend Pretzel’s Feb. 22 defense of the druggist Allan Van Loon’s refusal to provide emergency contraception echoes that of the Barkersville Area Ministerial Association in every way, including its strategic overlooking of difficult issues.
It might surprise the Reverend to learn that I agree with virtually everything he says, except, of course, the absurd assertion that Christianity has a monopoly on morals—but that’s another letter. After all, the whole thing is simply a long-winded way of saying that to be moral, you must obey the dictates of your conscience, which is obvious.
What he and the other ministers of the association astonishingly remain blind to is the fact that how you obey the dictates of your conscience is just as much a moral issue as whether you obey it in the first place.
There is a tremendous difference between being determined to satisfy one’s conscience regardless of the cost to oneself and being determined to satisfy it regardless of the cost to others. The first is the mindset of a saint. The second is the mindset of a tyrant—or a witchburner.
If Mr. Van Loon truly cannot reconcile his conscience with his professional duties as a pharmacist, he has a simple expedient: quit being a pharmacist! Such a course would in fact be heroic. Evidently, however, he finds it inconvenient.
This obvious solution to his moral dilemma seems to have escaped the admiring ministers. I suggest the reverends work on getting the logs out of their own eyes before they worry about extracting the motes from other people’s. (256 words)

Janet L. Factor is the founder of the Springfield (Illinois) Area Freethinkers.

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